|Holy Cross Father Theodore Hesburgh, second from left, joins hands with with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Edgar Chandler and Msgr. Robert J. Hagarty of Chicago, far right, in 1964 at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights in Chicago's Soldier Field. Father Hesburgh, former president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, died Feb. 26 at age 97 in the Holy Cross House adjacent to the university. CNS photo/courtesy University of Notre Dame
To people in the Diocese of Nashville who met or knew Father Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., he was a towering figure, not only on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, but throughout the Catholic Church in the United States.
“He was an extraordinary man,” recalled Msgr. Owen Campion, who met and interviewed Father Hesburgh several times while serving as the editor of the Tennessee Register. “He was certainly a pivotal man in the Church in this country. The church could never have had a better ambassador.”
“It was like seeing royalty whenever you saw him,” said Father Dexter Brewer, pastor of Christ the King Church in Nashville. Father Brewer is a graduate of the Notre Dame law school and also began his seminary studies at Notre Dame as a candidate for the Congregation of the Holy Cross, the religious order that Father Hesburgh belonged to and which founded Notre Dame.
Once a week, the community’s seminarians and priests on the Notre Dame campus would gather to eat together, and the retired Father Hesburgh would attend, said Father Brewer, who eventually left the Holy Cross community and became a priest for the Diocese of Nashville.
“If you walked through the room, you wouldn’t recognize him,” Father Brewer said. “He fit in with all the other priests. He didn’t call attention to himself.”
At those dinners, Father Hesburgh, who served as president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987 and died Feb. 26 at age 97, “was very talkative,” Father Brewer recalled. “He was a very entertaining man because he had so many experiences.”
“The chief thing people would connect to Notre Dame when he became president of the university was football. He was determined to change that,” recalled Msgr. Campion.
Father Hesburgh’s success in building Notre Dame into one of the nation’s best universities was among his greatest achievements and lasting legacies, Msgr. Campion said. “He made the university one of the major centers for higher learning in the country,” Msgr. Campion said.
Father Hesburgh was a leader in the movement to promote academic freedom on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities and asserting their independence from church leadership, Msgr. Campion said.
“What he did, it was not all peaches and cream, because there were alumni and donors who were very alarmed by all of this,” Msgr. Campion said.
Another of his accomplishments, Msgr. Campion said, was raising money for the university. “He had contacts all over the world. He knew everybody who was anybody.” While he was president, Notre Dame’s endowment grew from $9 million to $350 million.
Father Hesburgh’s influence stretched far beyond Notre Dame. He held 16 presidential appointments over the years, tackling major social issues including civil rights, immigration reform, peaceful uses of atomic energy, campus unrest, treatment of Vietnam draft evaders and development in the world’s poorest nations.
He was a charter member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when it was created in 1957 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He chaired the body from 1969 until 1972 when President Richard Nixon dismissed him over his criticism of the administration’s civil rights record.
He also served four popes, including three as the Vatican’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna from 1956 to 1970. Blessed Paul VI asked him to build the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, which Norte Dame continues to operate. Father Hesburgh also served as head of the Vatican delegation attending the 20th anniversary of the United Nations’ human rights declaration in Teheran, Iran, in 1968. He also served as a member of the Holy See’s U.N. contingent in 1974.
Father Hesburgh was so involved in national and international affairs that it was “a rare, rare thing” for students to see him on campus, Father Brewer said. “When you did, it was like sighting God.”
The joke on campus, Father Brewer said, was that Father Hesburgh and God were very much alike except that God was everywhere and Father Hesburgh, when he was president of the university, was everywhere but Notre Dame.
Paul Heer arrived on Notre Dame’s campus in 1953, a year after Father Hesburgh became president. He first met Father Hesburgh late in his junior year when he was running for class treasurer. The two met in Father Hesburgh’s office for about 20 minutes, recalled Heer, a parishioner at Christ the King.
“It was very humbling in this respect. I found out how little I knew,” recalled Heer. “I thought I was a pretty smart guy … by the end of the 20 minutes I left feeling like I should crawl out of the office.”
The two men talked about how to be a leader, Heer said. “I thought I had all the answers. He put me in my humble seat by saying. Think about others, and then he explored that. I’ll never forget it.”
Father Hesburgh’s advice was don’t think of yourself as a leader but think of how to help others in your role, Heer said.
At graduation the next year, Heer said, “He gave me a wink as he gave me my diploma.”
Father Brewer said he has tried to learn from Father Hesburgh’s example of leadership. When he was a Holy Cross seminarian, Father Hesburgh’s model for leadership “was stressed over and over,” Father Brewer said. The Hesburgh model was to put good people in place and trust them to do their jobs, and to invite them to share their ideas, he said.
Father Hesburgh remained approachable and humble. “He had a way about him,” Msgr Campion said. “There was a certain softness about him, there was also a certain firmness about him. Whether it was a king or a street person, he met them with the same degree of interest in them.”
Father Hesburgh “took very, very seriously the fact that he was a priest,” Msgr. Campion said. “He loved the Church.”